French Friday: The Language my Daughter and I Speak Besides English and French

As soon as my mother-in-law knew that a fourth child would join the family, she sent a big package to my three daughters. Inside were three realistic-looking baby dolls. All of them were boys, anatomically correct.

Always eager to contribute to the girls’ education, my mother-in-law had written a note: “So the girls learn how boys look like, in case this baby is not a girl.”

My five and four-year-olds played house with their dolls, but my sixteen-month-old cared for hers as well as a parent would for her baby.

“Bébé,” she whispered tenderly as she dressed and undressed her baby doll all day long. She even practiced with the tiny diapers I had received at the recent baby shower.

Figuring that it would be good for our daughters to see for themselves that there really was a baby inside my big belly, my husband and I took the girls to my third trimester ultrasound. Our youngest, of course, took Bébé with her.

“Would you like to know if the baby is a girl or a boy?” the nurse asked, moving the probe over my jellied belly.

“Yes!” my husband shouted. He had never liked surprises.

I, on the other hand, loved the idea of a surprise baby. “I don’t want to know.”

“Oh, come on,” my husband insisted. “We all know the baby is a girl anyway.”

“So?” The nurse held the probe up like a magic wand. I nodded yes.

“I’m happy to announce that the baby is a boy,” the nurse said.

“Like Bébé?” said my youngest daughter, trying to climb on the exam table.

I peeked at Bébé, sans diaper that day. “Like Bébé,” I said, holding my little girl’s chubby hand.

My husband had remained silent. I imagined a father could only want a boy. “Aren’t you happy?” I said.

“I am,” he mumbled. “But I’m scared. Can I take good care of a boy?”

“I will,” said our youngest, her eyes glued to the outline of her little brother displayed on the screen of the ultrasound machine.

She was exactly two years old when my son was born, but she kept her promise. Holding Bébé, she helped me change her brother’s diaper, willingly disposing of it in the garbage, while her sisters made disgusted faces and shrieked. Bébé was soon abandoned in the carriage.

“You are mon Bébé,” she told her brother.

That’s how she spoke when she was little, in this perfect blend of French and English. Already straddling two languages, two worlds.

My two-year-old is now a young woman in her early twenties with two Masters under her belt. To pursue her business endeavors, French fluency is an asset.

Lucky she, you are probably thinking. She’s fluent, of course, because of her parents. Well… Not exactly.

A mother once told me that my kids should not be allowed to take French in high school because it would be such an easy grade for them in comparison to the other kids.

Really? I asked her. Imagined if you had moved to France, had a baby there and only spoke English at home. Do you think your child would be fluent in English? Do you think that she would ace English only because you’re American?

She admitted that she had no idea. Her one-shoulder shrug showed, however, her lack of conviction.

I told her that my kids had the advantage of any child born in a family where another language is spoken: they perfectly understood oral French and had a perfect pitch, but without proper teaching they would never write and read French properly. So they would not be fluent.

Then, why don’t you teach them proper French? she asked. Her one-shoulder shrug morphed into a rolling of eyes.

It’s harder than you think to teach your mother language to your own kids when you live abroad. It’s like living on your own island with its own language. At some point, any decent parent wants her child to venture in the real world where a common language is spoken and master this language. Which is the only access to possibilities. 

It’s complicated, I said and didn’t elaborate.

After early childhood when a child’s brain absorbs anything new without auto-censure and self consciousness come the more challenging years of middle and high school where being noticeable is the last thing a teen wants to be.

My kids were no different. They really had very visible parents who were constantly asked to explain their accent and immigration story. So whenever I suggested formal French lessons, their response was unanimous, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Until an opportunity knocks at the door and the child who never thought she would have to deal with French away from her tiny familial island asks her maman for formal lessons.

I’ve spent the last week testing my daughter’s comprehension skills, mostly written. To make the practice more enjoyable we’ve worked around countless cups of tea, bottles of Perrier, and a variety of exercises.

Above all, I did exactly what I did when she lived at home: I only spoke French.

“When did we stop talking French together?” she asked one afternoon.

“We’ve never really stopped.”

“Right,” she said. “You always speak in French, but I always answer in English. Like now. I was so stupid to think my laziness would not kick me in the butt one day.”

“You are everything but stupid. And you’re not lazy or you wouldn’t want to improve your French.”

“Still,” she insisted. “Why did we stop?”

“Because it is hard to live between two languages,” I said.

“I feel like I will never speak French like you,” she went on. “You speak really well.”

Aww…”Your French will be better than my English,” I said.

“No way!”

“You won’t have any accent.”

“But people love your accent!”

“The French will love yours, then.” She frowned with concern. “I’m kidding,” I said. “Lucky you, you don’t have an accent. You just need to get to those grammar books you never wanted to open back in the days.”

She sighed.

“Think about it,” I concluded. “You’ve got a terrific advantage in comparison to your American friends. The exams will be a breeze for you. You’ll ace them.”

I almost heard another mother smirk behind me.

“Thanks for boosting my confidence,” my daughter said.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Besides, you can always text me or call me if you have a question.”

“I wish I had never stopped speaking French with you, though.”

“We never really did,” I repeated. “There was no way to keep up with French while living in the US, that’s all.”

“It’s so hard to only speak in French,” she admitted. “I’m tired. I have a headache. Even my jaw hurts. Also I’m so self-conscious ! I hear myself talk and it’s weird. I don’t feel this way when I speak English.”

“I know,” I said.

“You mean, it’s the way you feel when you speak English?” she asked with a concerned frown.

“I’m no longer tired when I speak English. My jaw used to hurt when I was a new comer. Not anymore, of course.” I laughed and then searched for the right words. And for once I chose them in English. “But yes,” I went on. “There is a slight distance between the person I am in French and the one I am in English. I can hear this distance. Even now with you. But I can live with that.”

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent book written in English and Italian, a language that Lahiri is still acquiring in adulthood, the author writes,

“When you live without your own language you feel weightless, and at the same time, overloaded. You breathe another type of air, at a different altitude. You are always aware of the difference.”

This is how my daughter and I feel when we speak each other’s native language.

A pause settled between us. And in this pause we spoke something entirely different. We spoke a language that straddles two languages that we both master impeccably. We spoke a language made of understanding for each other.

“I think I get what you mean,” my daughter said finally.

“I’m sure you do,” I said.

 

P.S. By the way, my husband was perfectly capable to care for a boy and he became an amazing father to his son. My daughter has remained very close to her brother. They only converse in English but love the addition of French slang and occasional bad words that they aways find more hilarious than their English counteparts.

Comments

  1. What a wonderful story! I actually have tears in my eyes. I’m married to a man who grew up in the states with his French mother (who moved back to France once he grew up). Your story is exactly how he explains his growing up to me.

    He can understand French pretty well and speaks well enough to get along and has a good French accent – but he is not fluent. Although, because of the dynamic you explained he is a quick learner. When he spends a few weeks in France – it’s amazing the progress he makes (compared to me).

    Thanks for sharing such a personal story!

    Suz

    • Your comment goes straight to my heart. How I understand your husband’s story! And yours too by extension. My daughter being young and willing to improve the areas that need most attention will progress. I am also available to answer her questions. It helps that I studied French in France 🙂
      I am happy that my story was meaningful to you.

  2. I found this article very moving, I used to read your blog when it was still in French but time goes by and I stopped.
    I’m French and I lived in the US when I was 5, we returned to France after only one year and my parents tried to keep us practicing English at home by bringing an English student to speak with us but soon they stopped, we were kind of lazy… When I arrived in the US I didn’t know one word of English but I had to learn fast because I didn’t understand people at school and they didn’t understand me either. Back in France it was different, everybody understood me in French so why bother with English ? (I was only 6…). Anyway even if I stopped practicing English on a daily basis I realised later ( when I was 11 or 12) that I had obvious easyness regarding in English, it was almost natural. I know I’m not fluent but I can “hear” when something is not right and my ears are bleeding every time a French colleague speaks English.
    Bref tout ça pour dire que les articles en français me manquent un peu mais ceux en anglais sont très intéressants également.
    Bonne continuation

    • C’est plus facile aux jeunes enfants de passer de l’anglais au français et vice versa, c’est certain. Votre anglais est vraiment bon et il est clair que vous vous remettriez super vite dans le bain si vous viviez aux US de nouveau. Mon intention avec mon blog était vraiment d’alterner mes billets entre les deux langues. J’ai écrit en français et en anglais chaque jour en avril en présentant deux auteurs français (un homme et une femme) pour chaque lettre de l’alphabet. J’imagine que cela m’a achevée! Mais je me disais que je devrais alterner chaque vendredi. Vous venez de me le rappeler. Merci. A une prochaine fois j’espère.

  3. That was a precious story. I liked it very much and thank you for sharing it.
    When we had ultrasounds, it was basically my son praying for a brother. But, oh, how his sisters love him! I’m pretty sure brothers don’t fawn and fuss over one another the way they adore him.
    To be able to listen in French and reply in English or vice versa, or in any language really, is one I struggle with. There seems to be a switch in my brain and it doesn’t allow for quick translation. Translators amaze me.
    I took French with a girl whose mother was French, and she did well, but she did well in all our classes. I don’t think she had much of an edge because same as you, she spoke English at home as well.
    My French teacher in high school was a marvelous woman, and I truly feel blessed to have been her student. She demanded 100% immersion in French and so we seldom heard her speak English. She WAS another person in English. She would read the announcements and official school documents in English and it was the weirdest sound EVER! LOL She had no lilt, no joy in her voice, almost like a robot. So I can totally understand why you feel like a different person in different languages.
    I love that you and your daughter play with language, as you know, we do here, too.

    • Thank you, Joey for your kind words and also for sharing your own baby story. I’m sure that my daughter would have loved the baby as much if she had been a girl. But she is very close to her brother. Having a boy in addition to three girls is also great for all of us.
      Interesting what you write about your French teacher. I hope I don’t appear as a robot, though 🙂
      I don’t really think of my accent when I mention being a different person. It’s more the fact that I seldom speak French away from home and France.
      And yes, I’m sure you understand that we play with language 🙂
      Thank you for another nice visit.

  4. I love this exploration of your relationship with your daughter and the understanding you have of each other in your use of language. I’d never thought about the challenges of living without your language – beyond the obvious one of understanding and being understood – but there must be an emotional wrench of not being able to speak it all the time.

  5. A very interesting post, Evelyne, so very human. Although I took enough French to meet high school and college requirements, I never mastered the language, never came close. And I’ve always regretted it. I’ve regretted not learning Spanish even more, given it’s prominence in our culture.
    I laughed when I read about your son and daughter cursing in French.
    Do you feel you perceive the world differently from your French and American perspective? –Curt

    • Thank you, Curt. It’s hard to master a foreign language and French is a tough one when you want to reach fluency. Ask my daughter 🙂
      My son excels at cursing in French. He has an amazing memory for this kind of things. Your comment reminds me of a funny story that I will keep for another French Friday. Thank you!
      Yes, I do perceive the world differently due to my French upbringing. But my American life has also changed some of these perceptions. I am less French than I used to be and way less French than current French people. But some very American values still surprise me.
      It is in this case more a cultural difference. As for the language the distance I feel is due to the isolation of speaking French with very few people, a little bit as if we lived on our own tiny island.

      • “I am less French than I used to be and way less French than current French people.” That is a very interesting sentence. 🙂 –Curt

      • It’s true 🙂
        When I go back to France many things in the way people behave or think feel more foreign than they used to be.
        When you leave your homeland you become a foreigner for the ones who stay. An element of curiosity if not someone they don’t really know and understand anymore.
        On the other hand I’m still less American than someone who is not naturalized or has generations of born Americans as ancestors.
        A little bit of both that’s who I am 🙂

      • And I think probably a little tough, Evelyne, being not 100% either. –Curt

  6. You share such an interesting perspective on language learning and I love reading about the interaction between you and your daughter.
    Isn’t it amazing to hear criticism from other mothers? We should all support each other as we are doing what we know in our hearts is the best for our children.

    • Thank you, Claire. I’m sure you know something about mother/daughter relationships and this one is very special. So agree with you about mothers supporting others. Unfortunately in the highly competitive school system such criticism happens. I could see why she thought this way but it was ignoring how real life works in immigrants’ homes.
      My daughter has made tremendous progress so she’ll be fine 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. Your daughter sounds so sweet. It’s always interesting to learn the special bonds between parents and children and between siblings.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the story, Dan. My daughter is a very sweet and smart person. We get along really well. It helped a lot when we worked together on these French things 🙂
      Like you, I find family relationships fascinating. I’m especially happy to see how my kids love each other, despite being so different.
      And I love watching them forging instinctive alliance as they did when very young.
      Thank you for another kind visit to my blog.

  8. impressive and emotional… ❤ we've been an international family for years, and each time we get together, we speak several languages and nobody cares about "l'assent": vive la différence!!! 🙂

    • Thank you, Melanie for stopping by. As a family we don’t care about accents either 🙂
      But there is a whole different perception when away from home. And speaking your native language abroad with very few people besides family remains an interesting and sometimes isolating experience. Still enjoy the journey as it enriches my life.
      See you!

  9. I can relate to your article very well. My mother tongue is different and we moved to US. Teaching mother tongue to my kids is a bit challenging for me. We all talk in our mother tongue so i have to teach only reading and writing. They are learning English in school anyways.

    • Then, Ramya, you know what I mean for sure. Take care and keep talking your mother language to your children. They will thank you one day and who knows? They may need to speak it as well as possible too someday 🙂

  10. Evelyne, this is such a touching story of (re)finding a bond with your daughter. I am really curious though about you felt about your children, or at least the daughter you write about here, responding to you in English instead of French for what seems like most of her life. As an English speaker living in Romandie with my French-speaking Swiss husband, one of my biggest fears (in the context of bilingualism, at least!) is that my children will stop talking to me in English, as I have seen happen with so many other children here. I feel like it would break my heart. I wonder if you could share how you managed this emotionally?

    Also, reading your line, “There is a slight distance between the person I am in French and the one I am in English,” I was reminded of an article I read a while ago about a study showing that our personalities do change when we change the language in which we think. Really interesting.

  11. Thank you for another visit and thoughtful comment. My children started to answer in English as soon as they started elementary school and as years passed they almost always did. Between them they only spoke English. Even though they understood everything my husband and I said. With this specific daughter it has been interesting to watch her fast progress. She has an advantage in comparison to her American peers. Her accent is very slight, but she lacks some of the foundation. I blame myself too, you know. At some point you cannot fight to impose your native language when you live away from it. It can be easier for other languages where large communities have schools or simply know lots of people who speak their language. The same doesn’t apply to French. There are of course the French American schools which are extremely expensive and most often expats’ choice for their children. We briefly considered it at some point, but we are ardent public education supporters. In the end, our four kids attended great universities in the US and still speak some French 🙂
    And yes, I find a slight difference between the person I am in French and the one I am in English. It’s due to my accent, I think. Whenever I speak English people know where I am from or at least if they don’t always know I am originally from France they know I’m not a native speaker. So it gives me an immediate immigrant identity. When I speak French nobody can question my identity. However, when I am in France people question my clothes and my new behavior. I’m less guarded than a typical French woman after so many years in the US, less self-conscious too. So it looks like we are never quite the same once we left. But I still find more advantages than issues. Living away from what was our home and speaking another language open the world and show us how people are both so similar and so different too. A constant journey. I wish you and your family the best. Thanks again for following my blog. My turn!

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